There are some places where a laptop computer just doesn't belong. For Tom Bestor, creative director at Group X LLC, a media-production company in San Rafael, California, one such place was among the bowls and dishes of a lunch meeting that he planned to have with Japanese executives. When he went to the restaurant in Tokyo to hammer out the content of a presentation to be given by the chairman of Sony, he intentionally left his laptop behind. At one point, though, his client wanted to see the details of the production schedule, located in Bestor's email archives. No problem: After lunch, Bestor simply borrowed the nearest computer and used Yahoo! Mail on the Web to rifle through his email.
"I'd love to be able to dump my laptop altogether," says Bestor, 42, who still lugs his seven-pound PowerBook to most meetings. "Why should I have to carry everything around when there are computers everywhere I go? Maybe someday I won't have to."
That day may not be too far off. A slew of technology companies are aiming to put all of your work tools — from email and appointment books to word-processing programs and important documents — on the Web, providing access from any computer. Their reasoning: With computers becoming nearly as commonplace as telephones, and with most of them providing Internet connections, you should be able to access your software and data files anywhere — rather than having to schlepp them around in a heavy plastic box.
Technically speaking, your programs and files aren't going anywhere; they're sitting on a Web server. But the beauty of the Internet lies in its power to make geography irrelevant. Whether you're in Toledo or Taiwan, you're only a few clicks away from your work. Your office, like the Web, is everywhere.
That's the theory, anyway. In reality, many of these computer-free computing vehicles are still in the training-wheels phase. But the companies behind them are pedaling hard, and there are now enough Web tools to begin leveraging this ubiquitous network. So, on your next trip, you really will be able to leave your laptop behind.
All eyes are on you as you stroll into the conference room to make your presentation. Miami is a long way from your company's headquarters in Minneapolis, but you've brought nothing more than a linen suit and a confident smile — no laptop, no video gear, no cables. You take a seat behind the standard-issue computer and projector in the center of the room. A few clicks later, you've got your customized presentation software up and running. Within moments, a sleek video springs to life on the projection screen; it shows how a little cold-pack ingenuity can heat up food exports to South America. The room buzzes. How did you do that? "No sweat," you casually reply. "Your office is my office."
There are about four or five business applications (word processor, spreadsheet, database, presentation graphics, and the like) that form the digital foundation of most offices. That may be why the virtual office has had a somewhat shaky start: The foundation has been missing. Although some of the organizational niceties, such as calendars and contact managers, are readily available on the Web, the heavyweight "office" applications are MIA. But that's about to change.
Sun Microsystems says that by this spring, you'll be able to run its StarOffice applications (which are comparable to the programs in Microsoft Office, such as Word, Access, Excel, and PowerPoint), directly from the Web. Corel says that its office suite, WordPerfect Office, is undergoing a similar makeover for the Web. Not to be outdone, Microsoft has announced that by midyear it too will "rent" its Office software over the Web, albeit only to users of Windows-based PCs.
Meanwhile, several startups are getting a jump on their Goliath-size competitors. Desktop.com and myWebOS.com are each online with new — and, so far, free — sites promising to bring a full (and fully accessible) working environment to the Web.
Desktop.com and myWebOS.com work in a similar fashion. After logging onto the site using your name and password, you're presented with a screen that has the familiar windows-and-icons setup of a Windows or a Macintosh operating system. As with a PC or a Mac that has software stored on its hard drive, you can launch programs, load files, create or edit documents, and save your work. The critical difference: All of this occurs within a Web browser, and your files and programs reside on a distant server, not on a local hard drive.
Although Desktop.com offers the snazzier interface, myWebOS.com is further along in providing the features of an online office. At press time, the company's HyperOffice was expected to include such staples as word processing, spreadsheets, databases, presentation graphics, group calendars, and email. (The early beta version included only HyperWord, email, and a few extras.) In addition, myWebOS.com provides several third-party programs, including employee-management and travel-expense software.
In contrast, Desktop.com doesn't offer any mainstay applications, and it doesn't plan to do so. The company says that it hopes to entice third-party developers to create office programs for its platform, although nothing further had been announced at press time. Instead, Desktop.com is showcasing more ancillary software packages, such as a day planner and a news gatherer.
Early versions of these programs leave ample room for improvement. My beta version of myWebOS's HyperWord, for example, can be maddeningly slow: There is often a slight delay between the moment when I press a key and the moment when a letter appears onscreen — even when I'm using a high-speed cable modem. And HyperWord doesn't have nearly as many the bells and whistles as Microsoft Word.
But those shortcomings will almost certainly be addressed as the software matures. And there are some compelling reasons to hope that they will be. myWebOS.com says its HyperOffice programs will always be free of charge and they will be compatible with Microsoft Office programs.
Better still, HyperOffice is by definition as ubiquitous, and as agnostic in regard to operating systems, as the Web itself. Even at this early stage in their development, Desktop.com and myWebOS.com offer a tantalizing taste of the kind of independence that could define computing in the near future.
Coordinates: Desktop.com, www.desktop.com; myWebOS.com, www.myWebOS.com
Data Parking Only
A two-hour layover in Detroit gives you just enough time to kick back in an airport lounge and leaf through your regional sales forecast for would-be investors. But suddenly you get a call from your company's West Coast rep, and the news is both heartening and heart stopping: Sales in California are dramatically higher than earlier projections. You've got to crunch numbers and change that report before your plane takes off for New York City. The computer in the lounge's business center is equipped with Excel and a printer, but you need a copy of the up-to-date worksheet. So you log onto your data-storage site and quickly download that file. With the new numbers in place, you print out the rosier forecast and head for the Big Apple.
Even if you're not ready to move your primary office applications online, there's no reason why you can't move your data files to the Web. In fact, there are two pretty good reasons why you should move them there. First, the files on your hard drive can be destroyed by a virus or a system failure. Second, the basic applications that you use in your office are likely to be available on PCs at the airports, hotels, and offices that you pass through on your travels. Delta Air Lines, for one, is equipping some of its Crown Room Club lounges with Hewlett-Packard computers that feature Microsoft Office software and Internet connections. Many hotel chains are doing the same, either on their own or through such services as PCRoomLink.
There is a growing cadre of services that can play virtual host to your most critical work. Driveway.com, from Driveway Corp., is one of the better offerings. Using it to put your data files on the Web is fairly simple. Once you sign up for an account and log on, you select the file that you want to store. Driveway then compresses your files before transmitting them to its server.
When you want to retrieve a file, use any computer to log onto the Driveway site and then select the file. Driveway downloads the file to your system, wherever you happen to be. Actually, your files are probably safer with Driveway than they are on your own PC. Files uploaded to its site (or to another site like it) are stored on a "disaster-proof" server that is backed up every day.
The basic Driveway service, which is free, gives you up to 100 MB of storage space — a binary bay that's large enough for plenty of Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. You automatically get 30 MB just by signing up and activating your service. But amassing additional space requires a little effort on your part: To earn an additional 70 MB of storage space at no cost, you'll have to fill out surveys and sign up friends for the service.
The downside of online data banks is that to use them effectively, you must practice diligence. Uploading larger files can take time if you have a low-speed Web connection, and the service can rescue you only if you've remembered to store the latest version of your files on its server. And when you're mobile, that Excel or PowerPoint file will be useful only if you're sitting at a computer that already has the appropriate software running on it. That said, a digital guardian angel for your files will help you fly light — and rest easy.
Coordinates: Driveway, www.driveway.com
After spending the better part of a Wednesday 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, you know that you'll have some mission-critical email waiting for you when you land in Frankfurt. Given Germany's notoriously vexing (to Americans) phone system, it's unlikely that the hotel's Internet hookup will embrace your laptop — that is, if you had bothered to bring a laptop. But you didn't bring one, and for someone who barely knows enough German to order a bratwurst, you're remarkably unconcerned. You realize that even if most of the text on the hotel's computer is Greek to you, your email is just a few clicks away — and it's all in English: You can access it through any Web browser. Let the Euro dealing begin.
Why do we do it? Why do we shoulder a bag jammed with a laptop and its accoutrements when its main (and sometimes only) purpose is to get your email? Fortunately, a number of Web sites can take that weight off your shoulders by letting you send and receive email from any computer with an Internet link. Better still: Most of them are free of charge.
Who offers such a deal? Web portals such as Yahoo! and Lycos do. So do online services like America Online (AOL Mail on the Web) and MSN (Hotmail). Just find a browser, and one of these sites can give you access to your inbox, outbox, sent-mail box, and address book, since those things are all handled via the Web site. Web email services require only a name and a password; a special email program, such as Outlook or Eudora, isn't necessary. By having company email forwarded to your "traveling" address (firstname.lastname@example.org, for example), you can keep up with mail even when you leave your hardware behind.
Yahoo! Mail is one of the more convenient and comprehensive of these Web mail services. It has all of the basics: You can read and compose mail from your Yahoo! account and check your company's mail server for messages sent to your regular business email address. (Don't worry if you have more than one address: Yahoo! Mail can check several accounts.) The service lets you keep a complete address book online, and you can search your email by key phrase.
Yahoo! Mail also has some of the perks that you'll find in corporate email programs. For example, you can tell Yahoo! to add a custom signature to every message or have it automatically reply to incoming email. ("I'm out of the office today ...") You can have Yahoo! sort your mail into designated folders, and you can filter or block unwanted mail. You can even have faxes and voice-mail messages forwarded to your email account.
But free email doesn't mean that you get a free lunch. The amount of email that you can keep online is rationed (a 3-MB limit is typical), and there are usually limits on the size of attached files that you can send or receive. Some services let you expand your mail flow (Yahoo! Mail will give you a 20-MB mailbox for about $20 a year), but many do not. Still, most of these constraints are tolerable — and they're a small price to pay for cutting the email cord.
Admittedly, severing the laptop cord altogether is a tougher challenge. The Web may be all around you, but it may not be in all of the places that you need it to be — airports, hotels, clients' offices — or it may not be there when you need it, or it may not give you access to all of the programs and files that you need to make it work. Not yet, at least. But clearly, the Web can serve as a kind of omnipresent adjunct office — one that will continue to become better staffed and more efficient, and one that can lighten your load as you go.
Coordinates: Free (for basic 3-MB service), or $20 per year (for expanded 20-MB service). Yahoo! Mail (www.yahoo.com)
Chris O'Malley (email@example.com) also covers personal technology for "Men's Journal" and "Popular Science."
Action Item: Global Access
Not getting a dial tone in Denmark? If you had dialed into the Global Road Warrior site before leaving the States, you might have avoided such connection hassles. This free resource offers local access numbers for logging onto the Web, and it tells you how to get the right phone-jack adapters for the countries on your itinerary. It even lists business centers and computer-rental services for those who travel without a laptop. International travel is a battle, and this is a weapon to keep in your digital arsenal.
Coordinates: Global Road Warrior, www.globalroadwarrior.com
Sidebar: Room Service
To date, the response of many hotels to the needs of computer-toting business guests has been limited to adding a data jack to the side of the phone in each room. But some hotels are wising up, either by offering business centers with computer-equipped workstations or by installing PCs and printers in their rooms. The latter solution is still very much an exception to the rule. But that won't be the situation for long if such fledgling services as PCRoomLink and SuiteLink catch on — and that's good news for anyone who's prepared to kick the laptop habit.
Both PCRoomLink, from Camanco Communications Inc., and SuiteLink, from GuesTech LLC, aim to turn typical hotel rooms into mini-offices, complete with computers featuring Microsoft Office applications, as well as high-speed links to the Internet. Each company installs the hardware and high-speed phone lines and then gives hotels a cut of its revenue in return for their trouble.
For the time being, each service exists in fewer than a dozen hotels. But that should change soon. Camanco expects its PCRoomLink to be in more than 1,000 hotels by year's end. What's more, GuesTech recently inked a deal with Choice Hotels to put SuiteLink into 50,000 rooms at Clarion, Sleep Inn, and Comfort hotels.
Coordinates: PCRoomLink, www.pcroomlink.com; SuiteLink, www.suitelink.com
We've seen the back-to-the-future of emailing. Dubbed TelMail TM-20, from Sharp, it's a checkbook-size appliance that lets you send and receive email from any phone — even when a jack isn't nearby. The TelMail TM-20 uses acoustic signaling to transmit messages. You dial an 800 number, wait for a confirmation signal, hold the closed device against the phone's handset, and then just press a button. A minute or so later, you're done. For economical, on-the-go emailing, TelMail answers the call.
Coordinates: $99. Sharp Electronics Corp., www.sharp-usa.com
The whole world in your hands? Motorola's PageWriter 2000X comes close to making that possible. A clamshell-size device that fits in the palm of your hand, the 2000X combines wireless Internet email with a two-way paging system. The 2000X resembles a shrunken laptop, complete with its own tiny keyboard. You can get email and pages on the run, and you can reply to them as well. The device can also manage your contacts, calendar, and to-do list. But such portability comes at a premium. Service from SkyTel costs about $25 per month, and you'll pay a dime for every 10 characters after the first 10,000 that you send. But considering the device's small screen and minuscule keys, you'll want to be brief.
Coordinates: $370 to $395. Motorola Inc., www.motorola.com/smartpagers
As would-be wireless email solutions go, the BlackBerry device, from Research in Motion, is remarkably practical. That's actually high praise in this temperamental field. For one thing, BlackBerry's relatively wide screen and keyboard make reading and writing email tolerable. Better yet, BlackBerry works with your existing email account — whether you access it via the Internet or directly through a company server — by using Microsoft Exchange or an ISP email account (there's a version for each mode of messaging). A copy of each message that you receive goes to your inbox as usual, but another copy goes to your BlackBerry device, which notifies you when the message comes in — so there's no need to dial in to see if you have mail.
Coordinates: $399. Research in Motion Ltd., www.blackberry.net
Sidebar : Future Phones
As a Web-access device, your cellular phone has some compelling advantages: There are no cords or jacks to worry about, and the device fits comfortably in your pocket. Trouble is, the very things that make cell-phones so portable, such as their tiny screens and keypads, also tend to make them tedious to use and ultimately unsuitable for extensive Web browsing. But the next generation of wireless phones may change that.
The R380, from Ericsson, due to be widely available this summer, merges a cell-phone with an organizer. When you flip down the R380's keypad, you'll find a screen that's large enough for Web browsing, albeit in black and white. (Nokia pioneered this two-in-one concept in its slightly heftier 9000 Communicator.) The R380, which was still in prototype at press time, is expected to have an entire suite of communication tools, including email and faxing capabilities, as well as a calendar, an address book, and a memo pad.
And more elaborate phone browsers are on the way. Qualcomm recently showed a prototype phone that features a large, slide-out color screen for vivid surfing. Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and others are working on similarly Web-friendly phones. So far, none of these companies have announced a release date, but look for product updates in the coming months.
Coordinates: Pricing not available. Ericsson Inc., www.ericsson.com
The Visor Deluxe, from Handspring, makes an excellent digital traveling companion. The Visor offers more memory and a lower price than its well-known competitor, the Palm device, and it comes with a cradle that you can attach to your PC through a USB port, thereby enabling much faster data transfer. Since it uses the Palm OS, the Visor Deluxe can run the same third-party programs as the Palm models do — an ability that can supplement the Visor's standard features, which include a to-do list, a memo pad, a calculator, and a date book. Like the Palm units, the Visor relies on an onscreen keyboard that makes data entry rather tedious, so it serves more as an adjunct computer than as a full-time PC. Even so, it has a lot of growth potential.
Coordinates: $249. Handspring Inc., www.handspring.com
Sidebar: PCS Internet Phone
When is a cell-phone more than a cell-phone? When both your email and the score of the Knicks-Celtics game pop up on your wireless phone's display screen. The Wireless Web service, from Sprint PCS, can deliver that support even as it ably performs its function: letting you make flat-rate calls in more than 280 metro areas through Sprint's Free & Clear Plan. With a phone that's specially equipped to handle the service (there are models from Qualcomm, Motorola, Samsung, and others), you can get "Web updates" (such as scores and stock quotes) sent automatically to your phone and do text-only surfing through such sites as Ameritrade and CNN.com. You can even send email directly from the phone. Just cable the phone, via a serial port, to a laptop or a handheld computer. Then wirelessly upload and download your email wherever Sprint PCS service is available — and that includes nearly every airport nationwide.
Coordinates: $59 to $179 per month. Sprint PCS Wireless Web, www.sprintpcs.com
A version of this article appeared in the March 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.